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    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011
    I am unsettled by this post which concerns untimely death: . However, I do not want to argue for its removal on the basis of it not properly answering the question. I want to stimulate discussion towards a particular end: deciding if such material is appropriate to appear on MathOverflow?

    The more cogent parts of my initial reaction to this post were on the order of revulsion, the thought that this could trigger copycat episodes, the idea that salacious bits of gossip make for tempting reading, and other things which I find socially negative in the context of (my idea of) the MathOverflow community.

    I can argue on the other side that real life happens, that tragic affairs are not banned from the mathematical culture at large, and that a more mature and hardened soul might acknowledge Gerry Myerson's post and move on. This argument still leaves me unsettled.

    What I want is to be settled, either by community agreement that the post is inappropriate for MathOverflow proper and thus should be removed, or a discussion by enough of the community to come up with a rationale for why it is appropriate, or a policy guideline from an administrator that says why such material is to be allowed. I don't expect to have the community serve my whim, but there is an issue raised by this post, even if I can't clarify what the issue is. I think it important enough to discuss and see if this is a pants-wearing issue, or something even more serious.

    I want to make clear that in other contexts, I would not object and might even welcome the information in the post (although not for enjoyment or entertainment). Also, despite my reaction above, I believe Gerry Myerson is correctly quoting and attributing his source. My concern is that this bit of information is misplaced and that it is to the detriment of MathOverflow. I wish I could clearly explain why, and hope that someone else will.

    Gerhard Paseman, 2011.01.24
    Gerhard, I'm sorry you were unsettled by my post. It is a very unsettling story, and I'm not going to use this space to defend the appropriateness of my post. I welcome discussion of that issue. I only wish to speak to your phrase, "salacious bits of gossip." The word "gossip" has, for some of us, the connotation of falsehood, or at least of unsupportedness. The story I quoted has been confirmed by Deane Yang, and also appears in Halmos' book of photographs of mathematicians. I think it rises well above the level of gossip. Whether it is appropriate - we'll see what the community says.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011

    I have no problem with the post.

    I fail to see how this could be inappropriate.

    I'm with Mariano and Andres here. I see nothing inappropriate in the post.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011

    It may be something with the accents in our names...

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011
    I appreciate the responses thus far, even though I am still concerned about whether the post is appropriate. I wanted to make clear again (since Gerry's response suggests that I did not) that I did not consider the content itself to be gossip. I am still having trouble clarifying my reaction, but I understand that what I feel is not necessarily what is. Again, I believe that Gerry Myerson is accurately quoting a source, and is not relaying gossip, regardless of how I feel.

    Also, I still think the issue involved may not just a matter of wearing pants. I would appreciate hearing from a few more members before letting the matter rest. I will further work on clarifying why I think it is inappropriate.

    Gerhard Paseman, 2011.01.24
    I don't have any problem with the post (nb : there is no accent in my name).
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011

    A short lived theory!

    • CommentAuthorDL
    • CommentTimeJan 24th 2011
    @Gerhard Paseman: My initial reaction to reading this post was similar to yours; I found the story it relates to be extremely disturbing, and I suspect many other readers did as well. But my objection, and I hope I am not overstepping by guessing it was yours, was to the occurrence of the tragic events that Gerry Myerson relates, and not to the fact that he related them. It is natural to desire to look away from such stories, and to try to remove them from public fora, but (I think) such desires are misplaced--the fact that we don't want to know about such things doesn't mean we shouldn't know about them. A community standard that keeps such stories out of the public view relegates them to whispers in department hallways instead, and risks giving them the status of gossip rather than verified, if terribly sad, truth.

    And certainly if such information was presented with any less than the admirable sensitivity shown by Gerry Myerson, I would be all for its removal.

    It may be something with the accents in our names...

    You are the best. Ever.


    I am someone who has often played the role of "decorum police" on MO, and I have no problem with this post.

    The event itself was deeply inappropriate, to say the least. Relaying the story in a sober, factual way is not: in my opinion, of course.

    • CommentAuthorTom Church
    • CommentTimeJan 25th 2011
    Coincidentally, I heard this story independently last Wednesday while visiting another university. However, it was told in hushed conspiratorial tones and without any identifying details, so it felt much more like an urban legend. While I was a bit uncomfortable reading the post under discussion, upon reflection I think I'm happier knowing this is a factual story that I can put out of my mind, rather than the "salacious gossip" described above.
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJan 25th 2011 edited

    The event itself was deeply inappropriate, to say the least.

    You are a master of understatement.

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeJan 25th 2011
    Karel DeLeeuw died pretty much the same way in Stanford, so the story is by no means unusual.
    As stated above, the event is quite saddening, but I thought Gerry relayed in a very respectful manner. So I have no problem with the post. I think Tom Church's comments above show how this post has indeed had some positive effect.
    fedja, Halmos writes of Koppelman, "several graduate students had started to work with him, but none had ever finished." de Leeuw was very much the opposite; at Stanford, he had the reputation as the one who would get you through if you were having trouble working with someone else. I know this as I was a grad student at Stanford (though not a student of de Leeuw) some years before the tragedy.

    I also see no problem with the post. But then, I have a hyphen in my name. (And I have heard the story before.)


    Whilst I have no particular problem with the post in question, I find that I do share something of Gerhard's misgivings. It's hard to put my finger on precisely what it is that makes me uncomfortable about having this post on MO, but I think that my disquiet is more that a question that leads to an answer like this is high on my list of "Unsuitable for MO" questions.

    I notice with some dismay that this question got highlighted on the "Not Even Wrong" blog as an example of how even in the tight confines of MO mathematicians can still "let their hair down". That bothers me. I would much rather that the first thing that comes to someone's mind when they think of MO is that it has led to (for example) many papers, or some unsolved conjectures being solved, or similar stuff - basically, the "success stories of MO" thread here, rather than that it's where people can get talk about mathematical urban myths. Given that people will naturally gravitate to the slightly odd and bizarre, the only way to ensure this impression of MO is to be strict in keeping stuff like this out.

    While I agree that the story is very upsetting it's still part of the contemporary history of Mathematics. It happened when I was in grad school (not at Penn) and it was the subject of lots of discussion (and black humor) among the grad students and faculty. A colleague of mine, Len Charlap, was in the room when it happened, and when he told me about it, it was clear that the pain was still fresh. I think what is uncomfortable because it's an example of a promised paper never appearing because of the death (or physical inability), which, unfortunately happens. I remember, quite vividly, the case of Chen Jingrun. He had published an announcement in Acta Mathematica Sinica in 1967 (or 68) of his eventually famous result (every sufficiently large even integer is the sum of a prime and a product of two distinct primes), but then he and his result disappeared for many years because of the cultural revolution. Fortunately this had an eventually happy ending.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeJan 27th 2011
    I can't say that I am entirely settled. I am getting over the emotional impact of the post, and I am glad to see (what I presume to be) calmer heads than mine taking up the discussion. In particular, I am gratified to see that I am not the only one bothered by the post.

    While I could ask for removal of the post on other grounds, it might look to others (and possibly to me too) as asking others to cater to my sensitivities. I don't want that. I prefer to argue on the basis of the good of MathOverflow and its community.

    MathOverflow is like many things and not like others. People would be happier for it to have more discussions, and other people prefer it to have less. Some want softer, less technical questions, others want to keep the technical and truth content at a high level. In particular, some want it to be like a professional seminar, with as much informal talking about the subject elsewhere, sometimes in comments, sometimes not.

    If I were to meet Gerry Myerson in person at a seminar, and he were to relate to me the information in his post word for word, even while the speaker was speaking, I would be bothered by the information, but it might clear up some other questions for me, and I would not object to it as I have here. If he were the speaker, and had to make passing
    reference to the unfortunate victim because the subject of the talk involved a continuation of the victim's interrupted work (e.g. "whose career was cut short by an act of violence") , I might wonder at the propriety of the reference but would appreciate it being brief and containing as little detail as possible.

    If the seminar were held in honor of the unfortunate victim, I can then see how the information Gerry posted would be relevant in presenting at such a seminar. Under no other circumstances can I see the rationale for someone coming up, announcing this fact however tactfully, in the context of a professional seminar. In the context in which Gerry made the post, it seems unacceptably jarring.

    As a milder example of holding to this standard of not bringing up unpleasantness, I wondered whether Richard Arenstorf (cf. ) had a son Gerhard. I decided not to pursue it on MathOverflow because satisfying my curiosity on that point was not worth the harm it might cause. (Gerhard Arenstorf was an IMO participant who died accidentally in Nashville while under 20.)

    My concern isn't with Gerry's sensitivity or wisdom in selecting what to post, and I do not want to make this an issue about him. I think the raw content of the post is something that should be avoided on MathOverflow. I prefer (at this time) to not open up issues of whether it is better placed in a comment than in an answer, or whether talking about how mathematicians died is an appropriate question for MathOverflow.

    Even if Gerry's post is deemed acceptable by the community, there may come similar posts which are deemed inappropriate purely on content, or perhaps I mean purely on context. What is said here may provide useful for those future cases. As I said in my initial discussion post, under other circumstances I might welcome the information Gerry
    provided. I just think MathOverflow is not the place for it.

    I appreciate the time others have taken to contribute. If my thinking on this gets any more clear, I will share it here.

    Gerhard Paseman, 2011.01.27
    I wonder whether the community sees any merit in the following suggestion: if you are going to post something to MO that might have a negative emotional impact on readers, post it in rot-13, preceded by something along the lines of "Warning: some readers may find the following to be upsetting, so I have encoded it in rot-13." I wonder whether the community thinks I should go back and do this to the post that prompted this discussion.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 27th 2011 edited

    I honestly do not see any need for such a policy.

    A tactful description of facts need not be obscured: we are adults. In particular, Gerry's post very precisely gives a historical example of a paper which did not appear, and explains the reason---it is on-topic, and to the point. It is tragic that that happened, of course, but it did happen. Since neither Gerry turned his post into a gory description of the tragedy, which would have been completely our of place, nor the ensuing comments did anything remotely similar to that, I really do not see what the problem is.

    Mathematics is a human activity, with all the good and all the bad that that implies.

    A good four fifths of newspapers would have to be rot13ed...


    I agree completely with Mariano. I most certainly do not feel the need to be protected from potentially distressing reading via rot13. In fact, though I am sure the suggestion is well-intentioned, I think in practice it could come off as condescending.

    What Mariano and Pete said.

    I disagree. If there's something that "ought" to be rot13'd or have a health warning then it isn't appropriate for MO. Instead, you should put up your email address and offer to send it to people upon request.

    A tactful description of facts need not be obscured: we are adults.

    I don't remember having to confirm that I was over 18 when I signed up for MO. Where did it say that? Even if it did, the website is still public and there is no "You must be 18 or older to view this website.". I actually find it slightly ironic that a mathematician made this statement! It's like being in a seminar on foundations of mathematics and only in the questions afterwards does the speaker say, "Of course, I'm assuming the Axiom of Choice in all of this.".

    MO is a professional website, and it is a public professional website. So we should actually be more formal than in a seminar. The seminar test is the bare minimum.

    But as I said before, my concern is not with the answer per se, but with the question that gave rise to it. That is not a suitable MO question, IMO.

    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011
    I do not feel sufficiently involved in MO to voice an opinion, I only wanted to point out a potential confusion.

    @Andrew Stacey: The answer discussed here was made in 'Never appeared forthcoming papers' not in 'Urban Legends', the post mentioned on 'Not Even Wrong.'
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011

    @Andrew, the world adults was not a good choice, for it does not really mean what I meant. I would not subject people of any age to rot13ing the facts of life, just as I will leave children unattended in the presence of a newspaper.

    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011
    I guess if you view MathOverflow as a site for purely mathematical discussions (akin to a support site for, say, C++ or Microsoft Word), then all this subjective messy human stuff really is inappropriate. If that's what the people in charge want, then I suppose they need to be more strict on banning all the questions that wander off into more subjective territory. But I confess to enjoying quite a bit what working mathematicians have to say about both the solid math questions as well as the messy subjective stuff. And I like being able to go to one place to see both. I don't know about the rest of you, but I just don't have time to check out *and* contribute to more than one site like this. So although I can see why some of you feel that stories like the one about Koppelman should not be mixed together with discussions about how to prove the converse to the Bishop-Gromov inequality, I find that for me convenience trumps focus.

    If there's something that "ought" to be rot13'd or have a health warning then it isn't appropriate for MO.

    I absolutely agree with this statement. Besides, I don't think web browsers generally have rot13 built in the way any decent usenet reader does. This makes rot13 rather useless in web fora, since only the most determined peepers will bother to un-rot13.


    But I confess to enjoying quite a bit what working mathematicians have to say about both the solid math questions as well as the messy subjective stuff. And I like being able to go to one place to see both. I don't know about the rest of you, but I just don't have time to check out and contribute to more than one site like this.

    Why should I have to wade through it all just because you like it? If it is separate, I can easily choose to ignore it whilst it really isn't any more difficult for you to check two sites than one.

    I want MathOverflow to be part of my working life, not my goofing off life. I find that my working day splits in to three types of activity: focussed research, wide-gaze mathematics, and "goofing off". My struggle is always to maximise the focussed research, but sometimes I just need a few minutes "goofing off" to recharge. Now, MO can't be part of my focussed research - that's when I'm trying to answer questions that I hope no-one else has a clue how to answer! But it can be a part of my "wide-gaze" work and I find it extremely useful at that point. But if it starts creeping in to the "goofing off" part, then it loses any value that it might have otherwise had.

    There are plenty of blogs, forums, and other places out there for the "messy" stuff, which don't have quite such as high profile as MO and so are easier to be more informal. If it doesn't fit on MO that doesn't make it a Bad Thing, just not in MO's back yard.

    I'm also curious about the human side of mathematics. But there are plenty of places to learn about such matters. There aren't many places like MO. I'm afraid that "I like being able to go to one place to see both" just isn't even an argument. As the old advert had it: "Take two bottles of shampoo into the shower? I just RSS and go."

    Mariano: I know that you didn't really mean '18+', but your underlying assumption was that everyone reading MO was as mature as you. Sadly, I doubt that very much. MO is a very public place. I recommend that we act accordingly. After all, wasn't that the argument we kept throwing at Harry in the Bad Old Days? That his actions here would echo down the corridors of academia for generations? Shouldn't we also think about that?

    an_mo_user: Yeah, I got confused. But if I can get so confused, so can anyone else. And the fact that this question, which seems innocent enough, could provoke such an answer underlies my point about keeping MO for focussed research questions.

    On the wider SE network, it is no longer possible to ask CW questions up front (they can be made CW by a moderator later). There's a reason for that: they want to keep the quality of the questions high and they found that CW questions generally didn't contribute much to that level of quality.


    PS: Harald, in the spirit of the great quote:

    Anyone saying that something is impossible is liable to interrupted by some fool doing it.

    I offer you

    @Andrew Stacey : I hope you don't take the following as an attack, because it really isn't meant to be. However, I'm sure you are aware that your argument can be turned around. Namely, why should the rest of us not get to enjoy the odd soft community-wiki post just because you can't resist reading it and don't want the temptation to goof off?

    Of course, most of the soft questions are lousy and don't generate interesting responses (and I've voted to close plenty of them because it is clear that they aren't going to be interesting). However, some of them do and I've learned a lot from them.

    I think the answer to this is to live and let live. It's easy enough for you to add the "soft-questions" tag to your list of ignored tags...
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011

    @Andrew quoth

    MO is a very public place. I recommend that we act accordingly.

    I could not agree more! But I absolutely do not see what is objectionable in Gerry's post, what possible reservation there can be in making it in a public place. Harry's behavior during the Bad Old Days was of a completely different nature, and its inappropriateness was quite orthogonal to its publicity: I simply cannot see what connection there is between these two things.

    • CommentAuthorShevek
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011
    I agree with Andy Putman and Mariano.

    @Andrew Stacy: If the "goofing off", "subjective", "historical", "professional" type questions were all appropriately tagged then people who are uninterested in them can just ghost those tags and focus on mathematical questions. People like me have certain desires for what we'd like MO to be and people like you have different desires, but I don't see why MO can't satisfy both groups.
    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011
    I liked Andrew Stacey's response to my views. I *do* feel selfish in my views, and I can see that his view should be considered seriously.
    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2011

    With @Andrew Stacey and others, I wasn't thrilled with the original question. My response is that I don't read most questions like this (except for the barely enough time it takes to skim past it in Google Reader). So I would never have come across the answer without @Gerhard Paseman bringing it up.

    That said, I strongly oppose any sort of "keep everything happy" policy. Of course, we have rightly closed questions from depressed students who should seek support elsewhere. But the answer in question was respectful and accurate, and anyway I don't like the idea that everything must necessarily be happy for it to be appropriate. (Cue rant about antidepressants and advertisements for them.)


    @Andrew: Sure, but then I never uttered the word “impossible”.


    Firstly, I know I'm pretty far out on one extreme on this position so while I argue my case strongly here, I'm not so strict on MO itself (I think - do tell me if you think otherwise). But I do feel that if I didn't keep speaking up about this then the "happy medium" would move too far to the soft end. So I argue not so much as to hope to convince anyone as to remind you that there are people who take quite a hard line on "soft questions".

    Andy's reverse argument doesn't work. I wish it did. Unfortunately, for it to work then the tagging system would have to be a lot more consistently used, and the "ignoring" system actually do what it says on the tin. I have some tags as "favourite" but it's almost useless for me. In fact, I tend only to use the tags when the question title and the first couple of lines don't tell me enough about the question - the reverse of what I would have to do for the separation by tags method to work.

    If the "goofing off", "subjective", "historical", "professional" type questions were all appropriately tagged

    and if I could speak Norwegian then I'd find life in Norway much less confusing. Unfortunately, the two events are about as likely so I don't see the point in playing "what if" games about idealised situations.

    The wider point is that it is much easier to amalgamate two separate sites, say via a feed reader or even just having two tabs open in your browser (good grief, how much effort does that take?) than to separate one site into two streams.

    To Mariano, may I remind you that it wasn't so much the answer itself that gave me cause for misgivings. I agree that that answer was written sensitively and carefully, but it could so easily have been done badly, and so easily have been offensive. That it wasn't is a happy (!) chance and I'm not sure that we'd be so lucky next time.

    To Theo: I am certainly not trying to "keep everything happy". I am trying to "keep everything mathematical".

    Deane: Thank you. That's actually all I'm asking for. If each "side" remembers that the other side is also present on the site and that their own preferences are not universally acknowledged as a truth, then each will moderate their behaviour and both will find that the site is big enough to accommodate them.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeJan 29th 2011

    Andrew, I ignore the soft-question tag. This works fine for me. To my mind, I almost never see an inappropriately tagged soft question. In all honesty, I really don't understand your objection to this solution.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 29th 2011 edited

    Andrew, I don't understand what you mean by "[you] are not so sure we'd be so lucky next time": when something distasteful, offensive, racist, sexist, or whatever else gets posted, we'll do the only sane thing, delete the post. What other option there is? What other thing is there to do to prepare for it? (honestly, I don't know what it is, I guess next time I'll recognize it when I see it :) ) Are you presenting a slippery-slope argument? Right now, It seems to be, the slope is zero!

    I'm very unsympathetic to this hypersensitivity to soft questions. Why is it so difficult to just ignore questions which don't interest you? The soft-question tag makes it especially easy to ignore that category. Personally, I'm not very interested in algebraic geometry, and MO has quite a few questions on this topic. Am I, therefore, in a state of constant irritation from all these algebraic geometry questions? No, of course not. I simply ignore them and concentrate on the questions that do interest me. A similar strategy allows me to enjoy reading, say, the New York Times, even though the large majority of the articles in the NYT are of no interest to me.

    I'm not arguing that "anything goes". I have no problem with hypersensitivity to homeworkish questions or questions with are too elementary. But there are certain "soft" questions which are clearly interesting to significant numbers of professional mathematicians, and I see no harm whatsoever in allowing these questions on MO.

    As to the original topic of this thread, I too see nothing wrong with Gerry's post about tragic events.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeMar 2nd 2011
    Enough time has passed that I am less disturbed by the post that raised the issue.
    Although not entirely settled, I have the impression that many (but not all) in
    the community deem the post as acceptable MathOverflow content. I thank those
    who read and participated in this thread. I remind people that the issue was
    about whether the content was appropriate, and not about whether Gerry Myerson
    delivered the content appropriately.

    Andrew Stacey said:

    'If each "side" remembers that the other side is also present on the site and that
    their own preferences are not universally acknowledged as a truth, then each will
    moderate their behaviour and both will find that the site is big enough to accommodate

    I think this is an important point: we may be unable to "do no harm" with each
    post that we make, but if we are conscious about what we post, then most anything
    reasonable will be accepted; the rest can be discussed on meta.mathoverflow and
    resolved in proper fashion.

    Although I would like Gerry to accommodate me (and he actually offered a compromise),
    even more I would like to be aware of what content be allowed on MathOverflow. I agree with
    Andrew Stacey's suggestion of a "Seminar test", even though that might remove some
    of the levity I have enjoyed on MathOverflow. Now after having some community
    members speak on this issue, I have more of an idea of the range of things that
    the commmunity will (in general? on average?, certainly not unanimously) accept as
    MathOverflow content, even if it doesn't meet my ideal of what should be on MathOverflow,
    nor have all of it pass a "Seminar test". Having that "heads up" is worth something to me,
    and perhaps that range should be formalized and added into published policy.

    Finally I thank Gerry Myerson. With one exception, I have seen him behave
    faultlessly on MathOverflow (and the exception isn't an issue of behaviour so much as of
    what is considered appropriate content for MathOverflow, on which the community is still
    not unanimous), and I look forward to his continued participation and contributions.

    Gerhard "Getting Off The Soapbox Now" Paseman, 2011.03.02

    Well, this is very old by now, but rereading both the answer and the discussion here, there are two things that bother me. First and foremost was the grim story as placed against the background of the OP that this is "just for joking", and that people give their favorite examples. (Actually, I am a little uncomfortable with the OP itself, since promised-but-never-delivered articles don't put authors exactly in a positive light.) The second has absolutely nothing to do with the question or answer, but with this terrible real-life story being related in Krantz's book as "apocrypha".

    I'm afraid I'm going to cast a vote to close.

    I agree with Todd that Krantz's book is a strange reference. The book is indeed mostly fun and gossip and those who are familiar with the book might view the story relaed in that context. Having a reputable newspaper as a source for the story would have been much better. The question sets a bad context too. I don't think relating the stroy in the level of detail given would be inappropriate in every possible MO context though.

    Thanks, Michael. I don't either (think it would be inappropriate to relate this story in every possible MO context), but in the present context it really sticks out like a sore thumb, and sort of kills the mood, which the OP meant to be light-hearted. [Perhaps this more than anything was what might have "shocked" readers -- we've all heard and can handle terrible stories, but this juxtaposed against other discussion meant as joking around is sort of jarring.]

    The question is closed now anyway, and I have nothing more to add I don't think.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMar 10th 2013

    Yet, already, somebody vote to reopen...

    @Gerhard: It's been a long time ago that I've visited meta.mathoverflow. Today I stumbled over this thread. And I just want to tell you that I immediately did see your point. And that I was unsettled (too) by many of the immediate responses to your initial "request for discussion" which I found maximally appropriate.

    Now I will take the time to read through all the responses.